Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern by Jing Tsu

“…the Chinese language remained the greatest barrier for Westerners to understanding the minds of the Chinese. It is Cina’s first and last Great Wall.”

A look at China’s struggle to communicate with a rapidly changing world from the end of the Qinq dynasty to the mid 20th century. Technology changed very quickly in this time period and most of the inventions were made with the focus on alphabetical languages. China had to be cunning in politics while also creating new ways to interact with Chinese characters within China and with the West. They had to find ways to make the telegraph useful for sending messages. They had to create a Chinese typewriter. Chinese scholars struggled to find an easier way to ‘alphabetize’ and organize the Chinese language. This was not without heated internal debate. The Chinese script was about the only thing that wasn’t purged in Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution. The unique, and long used language is very special to the Chinese people.

I have only recently realized how computing tech is very difficult to make work with Chinese. I have spent many hours making ibus-chewing (the computer package that lets you type Chinese in the Taiwanese bopomofo style). It was very interesting to see how some of these problems were solved in the past. A lot of the systems they made to deal with these problems are still in use today. I hope in the future technology is more inclusive of all languages and countries in the world. The ability to communicate with others should not be hindered by technological barriers.

This book would be interesting for people that like to know the ‘behind the scenes’ stories of historical events in the past. Language nerds and those interested in technology will be especially interested in this book. I do feel it didn’t go far enough in parts but I assume in a story such as this, it is a constantly evolving situation; you have to draw the line somewhere and click publish.

Quotes I found amusing

“Even learning the Chinese script, some Chinese educators soon worried, wreaked havoc on the body. Fanned by the introduction of Western anatomy, especially of the brain and the nervous system, people began to fear that long-term exposure to rote-learning made one lose intelligence.”

Ha. I should ask my children what they think of this. A person who learns Chinese as their first language has to spend about 1-2 hours a day for 12 years to learn their language. English has 26 letters but Chinese has over 10,000 characters! Rote-learning irregardless of the language does make one lose their intelligence I think.

“If you asked someone, at the end of his diligent study - which may drag on for decades - what did you learn? He would say that he learned how to recognize the Chinese characters….Nine out of ten never move past this point. – Wang Zhao”

I worry about this with my children. They have to study so hard just to learn this difficult language that it feels their brains have little time for creativity and exploration of the world. I don’t know if this is just me judging the Taiwanese education system with my own ‘Western bias’ though.

“Wang never strayed from the beliefs he had shared with the emperor back in 1989: China was losing its power because language was failing its people. Their low literacy divided dialects impeded China’s ability to govern, negotiate with foreign poers, and keep pace with the outside world.

This is why the education system is so important for modern nations. It’s interesting equating language to power. I would say the whole Chinese culture of not questioning their emperor or elders stifles the culture of inovation/reform that inventors and business people need to take chances with new technology and ways of doing things.

Lu Xun: “If the Chinese script is not abolished, China will certainly perish”

Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) leader of the Nationalist government, tried three time sto push through (Chinese) simplification schemes

Wow! This is something I had never heard before. The KMT (Nationalist government, now a political party in Taiwan) seems to be the upholder of ‘Chineseness’. It seems the more conservative members of the government stopped this. I am glad they did. Traditional characters are so beautiful. It is almost a moot point about them having more strokes and being more difficult to write/read. With phones and computers now, the way most people interact with the characters is to type the bopomofo or pinyin, then visually confirm it is the correct character they want.

Rating: ★★★★

Book #56 in my 2022 Reading Challenge

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